The Guardian reports
The world of university research has long been held to ransom by academic publishers charging exorbitant prices for subscriptions – but that may all be about to end. As one of the characters in George Bernard Shaw’s play The Doctor’s Dilemma observes: “All professions are conspiracies against the laity.” To update the observation for a contemporary audience, simply replace the term “professions” with “publishers of academic journals” and you’ve got it in one. For, without the knowledge of the general public, a racket of monumental proportions has been milking the taxpayer for decades. It works like this. If you’re a researcher in any academic discipline, your reputation and career prospects are largely determined by your publications in journals of mind-bending specialisation – like Tetrahedron, a journal specialising in organic chemistry and published by the Dutch company Elsevier.
But (I can hear some say)
Everything that appears in such journals is peer-reviewed – that is to say, vetted by at least two experts in the field. This is the main quality-assurance mechanism used in scientific research, and it’s what sets scholarly publication apart from most other forms of publishing.
Ah, but the problem is that ‘peer review’ still allows just as much rubbish through if it didn’t exist. Worse still, the only people who really profit from the process are the journal publishers.
This [i.e., the entire ‘peer review scam] gives enormous power to outfits like Elsevier that publish key journals. And guess what? They wield that power. An annual subscription to Tetrahedron, for example, costs a university library $20,269 (£12,600). And if you want Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, that’ll set the library back €18,710 (£11,600) a year. Not all journals are this pricey, but the average cost of an annual subscription to a chemistry journal is still $3,792 and many journals cost far more. The result is that unconscionable amounts of public money are extracted from our hapless universities in the form of what are, effectively, monopoly rents for a few publishers. Most major British universities are giving between £4m and £6m a year to outfits like Elsevier, and the bill has been rising faster than the rate of inflation over the years.
And you thought JBL was expensive… Ha!
But it’s not just the exorbitant subscriptions that stink; it’s the intrinsic absurdity of what’s involved in the academic publishing racket. Most publishers, after all, have at least to pay for the content they publish. But not Elsevier, Springer et al. Their content is provided free by researchers, most of whose salaries are paid by you and me.
So who benefits from ‘peer reviewed publications’? No one but the publishers (and the people silly enough to buy into the ‘we’ll give you the prestige you crave’ lunacy).
And then the publishers not only assert copyright claims on the content they have acquired for nothing, but charge publicly funded universities monopoly prices to get access to it.
We call that a ripoff.
The most astonishing thing about this is not so much that it goes on, but that people have put up with it for so long. Talk to university librarians about extortionist journal subscriptions and mostly all you will get is a pained shrug. The librarians know it’s a racket, but they feel powerless to act because if they refused to pay the monopoly rents then their academics – who, after all, are under the cosh of publish-or-perish mandates – would react furiously (and vituperatively).
Most importantly of all-
Which is why the recent initiative by a Cambridge academic, Tim Gowers, is so interesting and important. Professor Gowers is a recipient of the Fields medal, which is the mathematics equivalent of a Nobel prize, so they don’t come more eminent than him. In a memorable blogpost, Gowers announced that henceforth he would not be submitting articles to Elsevier’s journals and that he would also be refusing to peer-review articles for them. His post struck a nerve, attracting thousands of readers and commenters and stimulating one of them to set up a campaigning website, The Cost of Knowledge, which enables academics to register their objections to Elsevier. To date, more than 9,000 have done so.
It’s a shame so many biblical scholars don’t have the moral courage to stand up to greed. At least some of the sciency people do.